How Can I Forget What I Don’t Want To Remember?

Reader’s Question

I am 68 years old. All my life I have been unable to forget the past. I don’t mean I have some “savant”-like talent for remembering minute details. It’s just that I recall, with much melancholy, my past history, reliving various aspects of it whenever I encounter a familiar smell or a certain stimulus. During a typical day I have maybe 20 or more “flashbacks” to things, remembering people, places, or experiences. These memories most often invoke a sadness that is sometimes nearly suffocating because much of my past was filled with unhappiness. Riding along a road of my childhood floods me with memories, both good and bad. Things that may cause these “flashbacks” are particular odors, visual sights, or tastes. It makes little sense to anyone but me when I try to explain it. I have been treated for manic depression for years and see a psychiatrist regularly. Sometimes my memories are pleasant, but more often they fuel depression.

I just would like to know if I have some type of malady and if there’s a term for it so I could research it? I’d also like to know if there’s a way I can forget what I’d rather not remember.

Psychologist’s Reply

When things become part of our long-term memory, it’s possible to suppress or repress the memory but virtually impossible to erase it. But there are ways to help yourself not be as affected by bad memories and even to diminish your recall of unwanted thoughts when you encounter the typical “triggers” for them. First, when a thought or image appears in your mind that you don’t want, afford it little attention and then re-direct your thoughts to something else. The more you ruminate or think about the thing you’re trying to forget, the more it’s likely to remain vividly in memory. Attaching powerful emotions to the memory is also a way of enhancing its presence. So, try your best not to get worked up by the unpleasant thought and as quickly as you can change your thoughts and re-direct your attention. If the unpleasant image or memory comes back, change your thoughts and re-direct your attention again. Second, do your best to avoid the stimuli (be they smells, locations, people, etc.) that are “triggers” for bringing bad memories to mind. Lastly, do your best to let go of the negative emotions connected with the bad memories you do have. Although it’s difficult, do your best to forgive all connected with the bad event and do your best to “move on.”

It’s rare that a person of advancing age would complain about a memory that’s too sharp or even consider it a “malady.” It would appear that your real concern is how to avoid the melancholy that has accompanied some of your memories of an unhappy childhood and past. Using the cognitive techniques outlined above should help with that.

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